Kyrgyzstan: Civil society and rights defenders under threat

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A.Savin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Paris-Geneva, December 21, 2022 - For the past three months, attacks against human rights defenders in Kyrgyzstan have been on the rise, as part of an ongoing pattern of harassment of civil society by the authorities. This includes arbitrary criminal and administrative prosecutions, an illegal deportation, and anonymous offline and online threats. Human rights organisations are routinely subjected to unannounced tax inspections and smear campaigns on social media. Far from protecting them, the Kyrgyz authorities intend to enact new legislation that would seriously undermine freedom of association in the country if adopted.

Criminal and administrative prosecution of human rights defenders

On October 11, 2022, the Issyk-Kul Regional Court of Kyrgyzstan reviewed the acquittal decision of a lower court and sentenced human rights defender Kamil Ruziev to a fine of 80,000 soms (approximately 900 Euros). As the head of the NGO Ventus, Kamil Ruziev works to protect the rights of victims of torture and domestic violence. His sentencing seems to be a retaliatory measure against his legitimate human rights work.

Mr Ruziev was convicted for allegedly forging a medical document, despite the lack of sufficient evidence presented against him at the trial, which was limited to public scrutiny. Journalists were prohibited from taking photos and videos in the courtroom. Kamil Ruziev has been targeted in the past for his human rights work. In 2019, he reported threats, including with weapons, from law-enforcement agencies. Mr Ruziev filed three complaints in connection with these security incidents but to date, none of them have been properly investigated.

On October 23 and 24, 2022, law enforcement authorities arbitrarily detained 28 individuals, including human rights defenders, in the framework of a criminal case against them. They were accused of “preparing for mass riots” in relation to their protests and to the creation of a committee against the handing over of the Kempir-Abad reservoir to neighbouring Uzbekistan. Prominent human rights defenders Clara Sooronkulova and Rita Karasartova were arrested as part of this criminal case, and are being held in pre-trial detention centre No.1 in Bishkek at the time of publication of this note.

On November 15, 2022, officers of the Bishkek City Police arbitrarily detained Aziza Abdyrasulova, co-founder of the ‘Kylym Shamy’ Human Rights Centre, while she was monitoring a rally in Bishkek. She was subjected to disproportionate use of physical force during her detention. Ms Abdyrasulova was charged with the administrative offence of “failure to obey police officers” and fined with 3,000 soms (approximately 34 Euros). Before her detention, the Head of Unit 10 of the Bishkek City Police Department invited her to a meeting and verbally threatened her with negative consequences should she continue to speak publicly about human rights violations and socio-political problems in Kyrgyzstan. In March 2022, Aziza Abdyrasulova, as well as human rights defenders Dinara Oshurakhunova and Ondurush Toktonasyrov faced administrative fines amounting to 3,000 soms (approximately 34 Euros) for their peaceful protest against the war in Ukraine in front of the Russian Embassy in Bishkek. Their lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov, was sentenced to five days of administrative arrest for “petty hooliganism”. The police accused him of “insulting all judges in the country” after denouncing the decision made by the court to ban rallies in front of the embassy as illegal and unconstitutional.

On November 23, 2022, human rights defender and independent journalist Bolot Temirov was unlawfully expelled from Kyrgyzstan to Russia by plane after being held incommunicado for four

hours at the Manas International Airport, Bishkek, without access to his lawyers. Earlier on the same day, a city court in Bishkek had upheld the conviction against him on fabricated charge of “document forgery” (Article 379 of the Criminal Code of Kyrgyzstan) and ordered his deportation.

The criminal prosecution against him was fabricated and related to his anti-corruption investigations against top Kyrgyz officials. In addition, the statute of limitations for prosecution has expired. Previously, two other politically motivated criminal cases were initiated against Bolot Temirov, but he was acquitted by the court. His colleagues at Temirov Live, a project covering corruption and human rights violations, also reported surveillance, provocations, and smear campaigns on social media. One of his colleagues had drugs planted on him by unidentified people in May 2022. No investigation has been launched into this incident.

Other forms of pressure on human rights defenders

Members of the National Centre for the Prevention of Torture (NCPT), the Kyrgyz independent National Preventive Mechanism under Optional Protocol to UN Convention against Torture, regularly experience threats on social media and through phone calls, most of them anonymous, following the publication of reports, statements or other public activities. In October 2022, the NCPT filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs for one of the recent threats from a former employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs who had been sentenced for torture. At the time of publication of this note, the NCPT members were still awaiting a response to the complaint.

At least three human rights defenders and lawyers from Osh and Dzhalal-Abad have reported organised bot attacks against them on social media, psychological pressure from state authorities, wiretapping of their phones, and chasing by an unknown vehicle. In addition, the house of lawyer Ms Nazgul Suyunbaeva was searched in Osh by the State Committee for National Security on February 10, 2022. The formal reason for the search was the alleged information that one of Nazgul Suyunbaeva’s clients, who is wanted, was hiding in her house. A court later ruled that the search was illegal, as lawyers cannot be searched during the fulfillment of their professional duties unless they are caught in the act of committing a crime.

In 2021, the personal data of representatives of ‘Kyrgyz Indigo’, an NGO working to protect the rights of LGBTQI+ people, was published on social media. The social media accounts of the organisation’s members were hacked, and several of them were subjected to psychological pressure from law enforcement agencies and unidentified people. As a result of the pressure, the organisation moved to a new office and some team members changed their residential address. One of the members had to leave the country. ‘Kyrgyz Indigo’ continues its work under a climate of fear and insecurity.

On November 15, 2022, Kyrgyzstan’s border service denied an expert from the Russian NGO Human Rights Centre ‘Memorial’, recently liquidated by the Russian authorities, entrance to the country, and subsequently deported him. The authorities failed to provide him with the reason for this expulsion.

In November 2022, the Ministry of Culture of the Kyrgyz Republic banned the broadcasting of human rights documentary films during a festival organised by the human rights movement ‘Bir Duino’, because the films allegedly included “war propaganda”. A few days later, the ban was lifted, but two films remained banned for the same reason.

At least two Kyrgyz human rights organisations have reported to be subjected to unscheduled tax audits. The authorities also conduct regular unscheduled taxpayer examinations on the businesses of human rights defenders’ relatives.

Freedoms of expression and association under attack

On October 26, 2022, the Ministry of Culture of the Kyrgyz Republic ordered a two-month blocking of all websites of Azattyk Media, the Kyrgyz branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The decision was made on allegations of publication of "inaccurate information that is against the national interests of the Kyrgyz Republic”. The bank accounts of the media outlet have also been blocked.

On November 2, 2022, the Kyrgyz Cabinet of Ministers published on its website a draft law‘On non-profit nongovernmental organisations’. The bill proposes to tighten control of the authorities over such organisations by: 1) vesting the Ministry of Justice and the General Prosecutor’s Office with the functions of control over conformity of activities of NGOs to the objectives stipulated by its constituent documents and the legislation of the Kyrgyz Republiс; 2) proposing to oblige NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice of the Kyrgyz Republic, organisations which fail to pass state registration by December 31, 2023 would be liquidated; 3) prohibiting foreign citizens from establishing NGOs; and 4) introducing the notion of an ’organisation acting as a foreign representative‘ and forcing NGOs receiving funding from foreign sources to register as such organisations. A law requiring NGOs to publish their financial information in the public domain has already been passed. Yet, if organisations are given ‘a foreign representative’ legal status, they will be subjected to stricter financial reporting and will be required to provide details of activities and the composition of the decision-making bodies. If adopted, such a law would violate international human rights law with respect to freedom of association, as its aim is to stifle the voice of independent civil society organisations, by imposing a disproportional administrative and financial burden on these NGOs causing many of them to reduce operations or liquidate.

Recommendations to the Kyrgyz authorities:

  • Immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders arbitrarily detained in retaliation for their legitimate human rights work;
  • Put an immediate end to the judicial and administrative harassment of human rights defenders and journalists working on human rights issues, and quash the unfair convictions against those sentenced in retaliation for their human rights work;
  • Stop practices of indirect pressures to human rights defenders and groups, including wiretapping, organised attacks on social media, illegal surveillance and threats;
  • Carry out independent investigations into all human rights violations committed against human rights defenders and groups, and guarantee the comprehensive restoration of their rights;
  • Withdraw all legislative changes designed to restrict freedom of association, and create the best possible enabling environment for civil society, including for human rights groups;
  • Guarantee the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and ensure that human rights defenders and human rights organisations in Kyrgyzstan are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance and fear of reprisals.
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